Back in the 1970s, my mother would get Reader's Digest Condensed Books delivered every month. (She still does.) And every month I would look through that fat book to see which of the abridged books I wanted to read. Sometimes there weren't any that interested me, but there usually was at least one.
This book was one of them.
I guess I've always been fascinated with the idea of time travel. Who wouldn't want to go back in time and check out historical figures or just observe a culture and its everyday life, something totally different from your own?
Simon Morley works as an illustrator/artist for an advertising agency in New York, a job he snagged after attending college and the army before that. His job pays decently but it's boring. A man comes to his office and tells him that he's with the army; the army/U.S. Government is working on a secret project. Would Simon be interested in taking part in the project? Si would have to leave his job and all of his friends behind - including his girlfriend, Kate, who owns a small antique shop - but as Si's parents are dead and he was an only child, the army guy tries to convince him that it shouldn't be too hard to make the break.
Si agrees to join, naturally. But he asks those who are heading up the project if he can pick the time period and the place. He chooses 1882 New York. The reason? Someone in Kate's family lived during that time, and she's always been curious about a half-burned letter and envelope (both colored blue, of all things); what exactly happened to her ancestor?
He goes back in time not by using any sort of machine, but by dressing in period clothes, living in an apartment that was around at the time he's going back to (1882), and by using some sort of hypnotic state.
It works, and he's transported to 1882 New York.
Kate manages to sneak in on one of his transports back, and they have an uneasy but interesting time of it. They find out that Times Square is every bit as noisy in 1882 and in 1970 (when the book was originally published), that certain landmarks aren't where they are in 1970, and that the Statue of Liberty's arm - the one with the torch - is on display!
Those in the project decide to push Si further within 1882 society by having him live among people; there, he falls in love with Julia, the niece of the owner of a brownstone. He meets up with Kate's ancestor...with not so good results.
He's then given an ultimatum by those running the project, something the original "owner" of the project refuses to be in on. But Si goes back one more time, deciding to take things into his own hands...
Mr. Finney gives some sort of claptrap about Eistein and his theory relativity to explain how Si and others can go back in time; it's quite lame, but I could go along with it.
Where this book truly shines is in its evocation of a time long past. You can actually feel the joy of being in a sleigh singing "Jingle Bells" and understanding what that meant; the aforementioned Statue of Liberty's torch arm being on display is a wonder, especially as it towers above the trees; and there are still farms in Manhattan at that time. And that's what Mr. Finney has imbued this illustrated novel with: a sense of joy, a sense of wonderment. And, yes, you read that right: There are black-and-white illustrations as well woodcut-type sketches of scenes around New York at that time (including a couple of photos of the torch arm). Be warned, though: Mr. Finney goes on and on with descriptions of the people he meets and the sights he sees, and they are quite wordy. For me, this worked, because I have a deep fascination with history. But I could see this being quite tedious for some.
Where I felt there was a let down were at various points in the plot. The beginning is quite slow until the army/government guy shows up. There is one scene later in the book where Mr. Finney is describing a fire in such detail; I felt some of that could have been cut. Si also lets loose with a whole big deal about pollution destroying the planet and all (this is 1970, and there were a lot of serious environmental problems at the time) which I felt was too preachy; where did that come from? There wasn't much foreshadowing - just a sentence or two - so that left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.
Also, there are some terms that I found curious, even for 1970. Calling the women in the office "girls" was merely irksome (and I got over that pretty fast). But calling black people Negroes? Huh? WTF? I grew up at that time, and I can't for the life of me remember my parents or anyone in my family calling black people Negroes (or the disgusting other "N" word). Also, some of the clothing terms just sounded weird, like referring to men's dress pants as "wash pants" or something equally as strange.
So...I found the MC, Si, engaging, and the evocation of a time past fascinating. If you can get past the few downer things I've mentioned, you'll get to a most satisfying and understandable ending.